With group business comprising 20 percent of Florida’s tourism market—and up to 30 percent of South Florida’s visitors—the health of the area’s meeting business is in the forefront of Florida’s hospitality community in the wake of the four devastating hurricanes that slammed Florida this fall.

"I think the real impact of these storms is going to be in the longer term," says Peter Yesawich, chairman and CEO of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, an Orlando-based travel marketing, advertising, and public relations firm. "Many will now consciously avoid booking destinations in Florida in that August-to-September window. I think the memory of disruption is one that will not fade quickly for meeting planners."

That also seems to have been the consensus from the show floor at ITME, according to an article published in the Miami Herald yesterday, which reported that "the expo revealed ample hurricane jitters, with some meeting planners ruling out a Florida event during hurricane season." More optimistic tourism officials said they were fielding inquiries about damage to area hotels, but remained confident that in the longer term, meetings will return.

The results of a YPB&R survey taken three days after Hurricane Jeanne passed through found that 5 percent of travelers who, prior to this year’s hurricane season, planned to visit Florida have canceled trips as a result of the hurricanes. Twenty percent stated that they were less likely to visit Florida during the rest of the year, and a comparable number said they were less likely to visit Florida between July and September 2005. Meeting planners, being responsible for the safety of their groups, often are at least as conservative on these matters as the average tourist. Florida has long wooed them with discounted rates during the June-to-November hurricane season, and, according to the Miami Herald article, hotels may become more lenient on attrition to further sweeten the pot for reluctant planners.

Florida and Caribbean tourism officials working hard and spending much to bring meetings back to their areas . The Florida Commission on Tourism and the board of directors of Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing organization, met with Gov. Jeb Bush Monday to discuss marketing initiatives the state should undertake. According to an article in the Sun Sentinel yesterday, Visit Florida will start spending $1.4 million of its emergency funds to run ads that tout the state’s attractions in USA Today. The article also said that the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB is headed to New York, where representatives will explain to a group of 80 meeting planners just why they should keep the area on their preferred list. And last week officials from the Caribbean hotel, tourism, and cruise line industries held a press conference in New York City to assure tourists and planners that, for the most part, the region remains open for business.

The Hospitality Fallout
With $22 billion in insurance claim payouts expected to come out of the storms, according to the Insurance Information Institute, it’s inevitable that hotels and resorts among those putting the dollars to work for cleanup and rebuilding.

Some resorts in Southwest Florida, hit by Hurricane Charley in August, are still cleaning up and repairing their properties. For example, the South Seas Resort & Yacht Harbor on Captiva Island is closed for renovations until the end of the year, while the Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa in Fort Myers will not reopen until February 1, 2005.

Over on the East Coast of Florida, several properties were hit hard by later hurricanes. The Jupiter Beach Resort in Jupiter sustained extensive damage during Hurricane Frances and will not open until the beginning of the new year. The Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach, in Manalapan suffered some major landscaping damage during Hurricane Frances, and the facility was further damaged by Hurricane Jeanne. Hotel officials hope to reopen by Thanksgiving.

The area around Pensacola was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ivan, and hotel and resort closings there seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Visitors should also be aware that Interstate 10, the main artery connection Pensacola to the Destin and Panama City area, remains closed because of damage sustained during Ivan.

The good news is that other than those pockets in Pensacola, Southwest Florida, and parts of the East Coast, Florida’s hotels and resorts remain open, as do all of the state’s major convention centers. As for the Orlando area, its tourism infrastructure has made it through the hurricane season relatively unscathed, though some of the region’s major theme parks were forced to closed several times because of the weather.

In the Caribbean, some islands were hit harder than others. In the Bahamas, for example, Grand Bahama Island was directly hit by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. Several properties that sustained damage will not be operational until the end of 2004. And the small island of Grenada was devastated by Ivan—some hotels and resorts will remain closed until 2005.

Many hotels, resorts, and convention and tourism bureaus provide information online about renovations, closings, and openings. Below are some Web sites that provide regularly updated hurricane-related news:

Bahamas.com
VisitFlorida.org
Northwest Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana

For a roundup of the status of hotels, airports, and the infrastructure of various areas of the Caribbean, click here.
For updated government reports on recovery status of various Caribbean nations, click here.

To check on the FEMA status of your upcoming meeting’s destination click here (this site also contains the latest news and emergency preparedness resources).